Although with male anatomy, 6-year-old Coy Mathis has identified as a female since she was an infant (according to her parents). Colorado's Civil Rights Division recently ruled that she should be allowed to use the girls' bathroom. Here's my take on it.

Coy Mathis, now 6 years old, was born with male anatomy, one of a set of triplets. However, according to her parents, Coy has identified with the female gender from infancy, preferring dresses and "girl" toys and asking people to call her a girl. By kindergarten, her parents allowed her to fully embrace her female identity and asked the school to treat her exactly like any other girl.

At first, the school did just that, even allowing her to use the girls' bathroom. But a few months into her first grade year, the school decided Coy needed to use a bathroom in the school nurse's office, but not the girls', for fear that students and their parents would find the arrangement inappropriate or disturbing. Coy's parents pulled her from the school and filed a lawsuit against the district, claiming the act discriminated against Coy and violated Colorado's 2008 anti-discrimination statute, which extended equal-rights protection to transgender individuals.

that [Coy] must disregard her identity while performing one of the most essential human functions constitutes severe and pervasive treatment, and creates an environment that is objectively and subjectively hostile, intimidating or offensive.

The division ruled in her favor, stating: "that [Coy] must disregard her identity while performing one of the most essential human functions constitutes severe and pervasive treatment, and creates an environment that is objectively and subjectively hostile, intimidating or offensive" (quoted from this article in The New York Times).

The New York Times coverage also states: "But the state's ruling went even further, saying that evolving research on transgender development showed that 'compartmentalizing a child as a boy or a girl solely based on their visible anatomy, is a simplistic approach to a difficult and complex issue.'"

Two sides to this

It seems the arguments for and against this decision distill into two main ideas: 1. A person determines his or her own gender and that decision needs to be respected; and 2. She's too young to determine a gender and you can't make special rules for one kid.

There's also a lot of worry that girls in the school bathroom will be exposed to male genitalia. (My response to that is: When was the last time you showed your genitals to people in the bathroom? On the other hand, I understand questions that may be raised in terms of high school dressing rooms, etc. -- more on that later).

Sex is our biology (penis or vagina) and gender is the performance of that sex.

Now, to understand any of the civil rights division's ruling, I have to go back to all I learned in grad school about sex and gender. Namely that sex is our biology (penis or vagina) and gender is the performance of that sex. In other words, my sex is female, but all the ways I chose to enact "female" (the clothes I wear, the way I talk and act) are based on cultural expectations and personal decisions.

In other words, certain behaviors are not attached to my vagina. I'm not "more nurturing" or "less aggressive" or whatever just because I'm biologically female. Rather, these are societal expectations that craft my behavior from a very young age. This doesn't mean gender isn't real — it just means I'm not biologically programmed to "act like a woman." I learn that through society.

Who decides "male" and "female" behaviors?

I remember the first time a professor told me there is nothing inherently female in the female sex. I thought this teacher was smoking that funny stuff. Of course there is! There must be. But then I took a closer look and saw that I have both "male" and "female" behaviors in me. There are parts of me that are very, very "male" stereotypically, and as a mother I can attest to some of the "female" expectations not coming very easily to me (patient, nurturing, calm). I also began noticing how everybody enacts gender a little differently: Some women wear overalls and boots, and others wear dresses and spiked heels. Is one more "woman" than the other?

woman's work boots and heels collage

And then I started thinking about the danger of the idea that there's some innately "correct" way to "be female" or "male." I mean, who gets to decide that a woman is "nurturing" and a man is "unemotional?" Reality clearly negates this, so why is it still being propagated?

...They've obliterated identities and created seemingly impenetrable social hierarchies based on systematic exclusion and exploitation.

You'd be hard-pressed to convince me that expectations of "lady-like" or "manly" behavior have done good in our society. Rather, they've obliterated identities and created seemingly impenetrable social hierarchies based on systematic exclusion and exploitation. If anything, we need to expand our ideas of "male" and "female," and transgender youth are simply evidence of that necessity.

I become acutely aware of strict gender roles every time my son wears his hot pink sandals and somebody asks him "Why are you wearing those? Those are girl shoes." And he looks at me with sadness and humiliation in his eyes. I tell the other person "pink used to be the appropriate color for boys, you know," and the truth is my son likes the color, and sometimes wears his sister's clothes, and that's that.

And I have a 2-year-old who refers to herself as a boy and prefers boy clothes, but it's unclear to me whether this is real gender identification or she just prefers dinosaurs over fairy castles. They are, admittedly, way more compelling if you ask me.

Learning as we go...

So the idea is that a kid is born with one sex or the other, and we start dressing him or her in certain ways, and he or she either embraces those expectations or rejects them. Coy, evidently, has rejected them and identifies fully with the gendered expectations of the opposite sex, which is female.

Personally, at the risk of becoming wildly unpopular with a whole lot of people, I have to say if the kid says she's a girl, she's a girl, with all the rights and responsibilities that accompany it, even if I don't fully understand it personally.

I have to say if the kid says she's a girl, she's a girl, with all the rights and responsibilities that accompany it, even if I don't fully understand it personally.

To be honest, I don't know anything about bathrooms or whether or not a transgender youth should be allowed to use the bathroom of her/his gender. This is all too new to me, too. On the one hand, I understand parents' fear that this will open the door to co-ed locker rooms, etc., and that may violate a whole slew of individual preferences. On the other hand, we are moving toward new times, and I see the need for the absolution of staunch gendered binaries.

I can also imagine how difficult it would be if I were forced to use the restroom of the boys when I was a kid. I wasn't a boy. I was a girl. So why am I in the boy's bathroom? That would be shocking and disturbing to say the least.

unisex bathroom sign

Some have proposed a separate gender-neutral bathroom. Maybe, but we all know how well the "separate but equal" mentality goes…

So I guess in the end we just take it one step at a time and recognize that Coy has just as much right to be a girl as I ever did, and as a society we'd better figure out how to accommodate her and others like her, or at least open our societal structures to her completely, as just one more kid on the playground, being a kid, growing into an adult, in a [hopefully] safe and loving world.

More on youth rights and identity

Boy Scouts and bigotry
I'll still let my boys be Scouts, for now...
Let's make girls unstoppable

Coy Mathis photo credit: Ivan Nikolov/WENN.com

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